In the genre of young adult fiction, let alone the whole of literature, it can be extremely difficult to find a novel these days that manages to stand out amongst the crowd. Authors seem more inclined to follow another trend in the industry than to break away and attempt something unique and different. In this endless cycle of vampires, dead cheerleaders, and fearless faeries, a reader of any age can be left wanting much more out of a genre that many consider to symbolize the very precipice of creativity.
So it was that a number of years ago, while browsing the aisles of a Barnes and Noble, that a young woman pointed out a book to me and recommended I should read it. Looking at the strange cover of a woman surrounded by bones, I ignored her advice, interested only in the book that I had come for. A year later however, almost to the day, I spotted the book in question and, remembering the recommendation of a girl long before, picked it up off the shelf and promptly bought it. It was only an hour later that I began to read the first chapter.
The setting of Sigsawa’s novel is as foreign as it is similar to our own. Readers are quickly introduced to a world of vast diversity. Countries are the size of towns, and areas exist where, although robots roam, no considerable technological advances have been made. These are just a few of the strangely beautiful paradoxes that take up room in this imaginary creation. The main protagonist, a young teenage girl who goes by the name Kino, is accompanied by her companion, a talking motorcycle, as they visit each of these unique countries on their journey. The novel is told through a series of short stories, each one representing a stay in one of the countries that she visits and each one never lasting more than three days. At each stop she is confronted with the lives, hardships, and problems of people and sometimes entire cultures that she has never met, and at each one she questions whether to intervene. Though none of the stories are connected chronologically, they all share one thing in common: Kino has arrived, and with her, a new perspective.
Kino no Tabi, is, in a word, one of the most stunning book series to be written in many years. Beautifully written, painfully poignant, and stunningly thought provoking, this collection of short stories that chronicle the journey of one girls choices and relationships will leave readers breathless and gasping for more.
The book, the first of a currently ongoing series of over fourteen, became a huge success in Japan when it was first published in 2000. It has sold nearly 6 million copies since, making it one of the top bestselling young adult novels in the nation. Besides being made into a television series as well as two films, one of which received a theatrical release, the book series has been featured in a number of video games and inspired a successful spinoff series by the same author.
The reason for the novel’s phenomenal success is obvious from the first time you sit down to read it. Filled with fascinating characters that hold to even more fascinating ideological extremes and combining fantasy with philosophy, Kino no Tabi strikes a chord in literature that few books do.
One of the things about this book that deserves so much praise is its ability to provoke thought out of the reader by either pure absurdity or uncomfortable malice. Unlike so many other novels that attempt to weave moral lessons in their tales, this author manages to do so without specifically pushing his own agenda. Through this unpredictable journey of vivid imagery and gripping story lines, the novel prods its readers at each page to reach their own conclusions regarding the book’s many meanings and what they can take from it for their own lives. Readers who do not come with a ready mind will possibly miss out on the bigger picture that is trying to be painted by the author.
Both haunting and inspiring, Sigsawa manages to weave a tale of such intricacy that readers will be delighted by its childlike simplicity. Concentrating on issues such as war, family, human rights, love, and politics, the book takes a critical and unapologetic look at the world and those who live in it. Every country visited is another experience, another possibility of danger or discovery. And every chapter is a delight to read.
However, the book, no matter how much deserving of praise, must also be criticized. This criticism is not directed towards the author, but towards the publisher TokyoPop who bought the rights and translated this piece of literature. While the translation is good, it is also heavily edited. Entire paragraphs have been deleted for reasons we will never know, illustrations rejected, chapters rearranged, and the author’s afterward is not included. These controversial changes have generated bitter criticism of the publisher and many of its future YA publications. Subsequently, for reasons that the publisher claimed were rooted in an issue over publishing rights, none of the other books in the series have been released in English, much to many readers dismay.
Kino no Tabi is, to be blunt, a masterpiece of YA. Its thought provoking stories and engaging characters are sure to stick in the minds of readers for years to come and I doubt will fade without a fight. With a high chance of re-readability, this is not a book to miss if one can help it.
Note: TokyoPop has discontinued printing this novel for now, and available copies are sometimes sold by different people for outrageous prices in the hundreds. If you wish to obtain a copy, be sure you find a reasonably priced one. Chances are you will have go buy it used.
Matthew Reeves is an aspiring novelist living in California. You can usually find him lost in thought on a walk or writing on Twitter as @MattReeves17.